Zomba Prison Project
I Have No Everything Here
In chapter 25 of the Chattanooga City code, such spooky activities including engaging in clairvoyance, seership and necromancy are considered unlawful—look it up, if you don’t believe this writer.
However, it seems unlikely that these laws are frequently enforced, if at all, or that there is a necromancy task force in our local police department. In the southeast African nation of Malawi, it’s a different situation.
At the maximum-security Zomba Prison, populated way beyond its intended capacity, prisoners are held on charges such as witchcraft or homosexuality and share the compound with thieves and murderers.
Musician and producer Ian Brennan (not to be confused with the Glee creator of the same name) was disturbed by the notions that “entire countries are left globally voiceless” and that western culture has a superiority complex, mirroring inequalities in the world.
In 2013, Brennan and his wife traveled to Zomba Prison, and in exchange for giving classes on violence prevention—one of Brennan’s fields of expertise—prison officials allowed them to meet with the prisoners and record willing singers and musicians.
They ended up recording over six hours of music from over sixty prisoners, and the 20-track album I Have No Everything Here is the result, with some proceeds going to legal representation for the prisoners.
While the song titles can be unflinchingly bleak—including “Please, Don’t Kill My Child” and “I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS”—the performances are far from being hopeless and miserable, often being pure energy and emotion with untrained voices and largely competent musicians.
Tracks range from a cappella numbers to songs with modest accompaniments or even full-band arrangements, and many tracks are brief, being around a minute or less, providing just a taste. This writer believes that the album could have been arranged and sequenced in a more effective way, somehow allowing the very short moments to breathe and resonate more fully, but the source material is absolutely compelling.
The New York City outfit Zs, founded by tenor saxophonist Sam Hillmer, has gone through its share of configurations since 2000, with apparent avant-jazz influences and a brazen noise-rock affinity at times.
For this writer, the most memorable features of Zs include a devious, enunciated aggression that can erupt after a seething build-up, and a willingness to employ various textures and tools in order to excite and provoke, but not exactly with a cartoony, slapstick method.
Take, for instance, the group’s excellent 2013 EP Grain, which took synthetic sound molestations and an intense take on electro-acoustic music to dizzying heights.
Zs is currently a trio, with Hillmer joined by percussionist Greg Fox (also of the black metal band Liturgy) and guitarist Patrick Higgins, and the group’s latest full-length, Xe, was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs or post-processing, leading the listener to realize that all the sound warping and synthetic wizardry was done in real-time.
The proceedings are a tad less abrasively noisy than some previous work, although the threesome can still generate an impressive ruckus, like on “The Future of Royalty,” with staccato, piercing notes, beatbox claps, the cheerful insanity of Hillmer’s sax tooting and an ending flurry of drum pummeling and head-on cymbal crashes.
The glitchy “Wolf Government” is ridden with artificial note-bending, and the long “Corps” is a bit maddening, going through two complete cycles of rigor (hand-muted electric guitar plucks, bustling beats, sax squawks) and looseness, rather than taking a more predictable catharsis-type conclusion.
The album’s title track is its longest piece, beginning with a gargling guitar and short blast of thrash-jazz, before running with guitar harmonics, drum clicks and foreboding sax puffs. Xe is a complicated and well-articulated album, particularly for a live-in-the-studio recording, but its take on uncertainty and aural payoffs could have been more striking.
While the listener is not sure what each piece is really building toward, it doesn’t invoke as much dread or sublime terror that this writer would have liked.